1942 + 80 Years – Operation Torch: Breakthrough in North Africa

German field marshal Erwin Rommel observing the Battle of Alam el Halfa from a Sd.Kfz. 250, September 1942. (Bundesarchiv – German Federal Archives)
British soldiers advancing during the Second Battle of El Alamein, October 1942. (Imperial War Museum)
Soldiers from the British Indian Army standing at attention in North Africa, October 1940. Over 2.5 million Indian soldiers fought with the Allied armies across the planet in World War II. (Imperial War Museum)

During World War II, the combined militaries of the Allies and Axis powers clashed across the Mediterranean Sea in Southern Europe, part of the Middle East, and most prominently in North Africa. The Kingdom of Italy – under the reign of Benito Mussolini and the National Fascist Party – aspired to create a modern Roman Empire through conquest and colonization in the Mediterranean and in Africa. From 1936 to 1943, Italy invaded and controlled Yugoslavia, British Somaliland, Tunisia, certain parts of Greece and France, and a fragment of Egypt. The United Kingdom was the foremost Allied power in the Mediterranean region at the time, and their naval and land victories in both the 1940 Battle of Taranto and the 1941 Operation Compass pushed Italy out of Egypt. In response to Italy losing strategic holdings to the British, the German Reich deployed the Deutsches Afrikakorps – otherwise known as the German Africa Corps – to rapidly force the British and Commonwealth armies back into Libya and Egypt in early 1941. After months of the Allies and Axis powers gaining and losing ground, the British launched a successful offensive against the Italian and German forces in Operation Crusader in late 1941 and early 1942. With the combined support of its Commonwealth forces drawn from Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand, the United Kingdom managed to sustain a large fighting force composed of soldiers from across its global empire to fight against the battle-hardened German Africa Corps. The two successful Battles of El Alamein in the summer of 1942 drove the Axis forces out of Egypt and Libya, after which the British and Commonwealth armies pursued them west across the Sahara Desert. With Germany seizing ground in Tunisia while retreating west, the foundation was set for another Allied nation to land at the western edge of the continent, where they would rally with the British and Commonwealth forces to permanently push the Axis powers out of North Africa.

Burning wreckage of the destroyed USS Arizona after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. (Public Domain)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the United States’ formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan, December 8, 1941. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Delegates from twenty-six Allied nations signing the Atlantic Charter on January 1, 1942. (Public Domain)

After two years of military neutrality and negotiated alliances with the Allied nations, the United States was drawn into World War II after the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The aerial attack on the Territory of Hawaii was one part of a larger Japanese military offensive against American and British lands throughout the Pacific Ocean, including the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By the time the Japanese forces withdrew from Pearl Harbor, four battleships were sunk, hundreds of aircraft were destroyed, and a combined 2,335 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines were killed. In a joint session of Congress the following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, famously remarking that the calendar date of December 7, 1941 would become a “date which will live in infamy…” In keeping with Roosevelt’s reputation for his carefully-delivered remarks and appealing public persona, the speech was heard by the largest possible audience of American radio listeners in history at the time, and has since been considered by certain historians and political analysts to be one of the greatest American political speeches. The Congress near-unanimously voted to declare war on the Empire of Japan, while the United Kingdom declared war on them the very same day. Because of the mutual agreements made among the Axis powers, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States in response, officially commencing the country’s direct involvement in World War II. On New Year’s Day in 1942, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of China signed an agreement that formally initiated the political and military alliance of the Allied nations, with the mutual goal to defeat the Axis powers. More nations signed the agreement the following day, and other nations formally declared their allegiance to the Allies as the war continued. The signed agreement – later identified as the United Nations Declaration – would later be used as the foundational resource for the United Nations and its founding charter in 1945. As the United States increased its military preparations for the war, the Allies discussed a series of possible strategic approaches against the Axis powers in the Atlantic. The British military leaders convinced the Americans to avoid a direct invasion of Germany immediately, as such a concept was considered strategically-infeasible in 1942. Upon suggesting that the combined Allied armies should engage the peripheral Axis forces – with the intention of wearing away the enemy’s capability to fight such a large-scale war – the Americans agreed to commence its military operations in Europe by joining the British in North Africa.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army landing on the shores of Algiers during Operation Torch, November 1942. (National Archives and Records Administration)
From left to right: Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Major General Terry Allen, and the newly-promoted Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. in North Africa, March 1943. (Public Domain)
Prime Minister Winston Churchill visiting Allied soldiers in Carthage, two months after the Axis powers were pushed out of North Africa, June 1943. (Imperial War Museum)

While the British and Commonwealth militaries successfully pushed the Axis powers across the Sahara Desert to Tunisia, the remaining western territories in North Africa were under the control of the Axis-allied Vichy French government. The Vichy French had hundreds of thousands of soldiers spread throughout Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. During the strategic planning of the American intervention in North Africa, the political situation of the Vichy French territories were revealed to be more complex than originally anticipated. While the western portions of North Africa were officially part of France’s colonial empire, the Axis-allied Vichy French were the governing faction in the war, and the political perspectives of the local population of Free French exiles, pro-Vichy French groups, members of the French Resistance, and the diverse indigenous locals would make the American intervention strategy that much more difficult to consider. The amphibious landings in North Africa had tens of thousands of American and British soldiers landing in the cities of Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers over the course of several days in November 1942. Heavy casualties were incurred at the landings of Oran, as the combined American and British landing forces came under attack from Vichy French crossfire. In spite of the unexpected resistance by the defending Vichy French, the American soldiers successfully secured the landing zones in all three main cities, establishing an Allied beachhead across the coasts of Morocco and Algeria. The successful Operation Torch saw the American armies gain their first major victory in World War II. Paratroopers and Rangers from the U.S. Army were also successfully used for the first time at the landings around the city of Oran. Difficulties in reaching the shoreline on the amphibious landing craft helped the Allied commanders examine different methods of delivering soldiers from the sea to the land, which would later help them form more successful landings in Italy and France. Over the next several months, the American and British armies advanced respectively from the west and the east, trapping the remaining Axis powers in Tunisia. In spite of the successful advances, the Allies suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943. Due to the heavy casualties sustained by the American forces in the battle, the commanding general of the U.S. II Corps was replaced with the newly-promoted Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. Patton’s strict regulations for his soldiers and his rigorous training exercises helped the American armies win against the Axis forces at the Battle of El Guettar in April 1943. With the American and British armies defeating the Germans and Italians in the combined Operations Vulcan and Strike in May 1943, the Axis powers were completely pushed out of North Africa. The final surrender of the Axis powers on May 13 marked the conclusion of the Allied campaign in North Africa, and laid the foundation for the invasion of Sicily two months later.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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